Volunteer Firefighters in Mississippi County Eye Tax Increase

By DANNY BARRETT JR. | May 22, 2013

Fire trucks and other firefighting equipment cost a lot of money, and prices are rising, so Warren, Miss., volunteer districts are looking to possibly seek an increase in property taxes.

“We’re getting squeezed and squeezed by costs,” said Chuck Tate, former Culkin Volunteer Fire Department chief and chairman of the department’s five-member fire protection district.

Since 1987, a 2-mill property tax has funded the Culkin, Fisher Ferry, Bovina and Eagle Lake protection districts. The tax adds $20 to tax bills for every $100,000 in assessed value for about 7,000 homes and businesses in those districts.

Areas served by the LeTourneau and Northeast volunteer stations are not within taxing districts but are rated for fire insurance purposes.

The money generates $175,000 that’s distributed among districts by population to fund day-to-day expenses. It supplements a one-quarter-mill tax levy that kicks in an additional $1,400 a month. Doubling the 2-mill tax would grow surpluses to replace equipment more often, officials said.

“It would generate about $80,000 for the Culkin district,” Tate said. “We need to start socking away some money. We need the extra money for air packs that date to 1992 or older. “We need the extra money for nozzles and a thermal imaging camera. We need the extra money for new jackets and pants.”

Non-tax revenue for the Culkin district totaled $21,800 in 2011, according to the district’s most recent and complete budget figures available. About three-quarters of it came from a one-quarter-mill allocation from the board of supervisors that is applied countywide to fund fire protection.

Spending totaled $25,563 and prompted cuts in 2012 to try to close the deficit, Tate said.

“We don’t have a landline phone at the station anymore,” Tate said. “And we sew our own repairs to our uniforms. Right now, I do most of the sewing.”

The department’s estimated cost to dress a firefighter is about $8,791, with the most expensive part being $6,525 to outfit one of 20 to 25 active volunteers with air packs, Tate said. That figure includes a harness and masks that “don’t always interface” with older tanks, Tate said.

The state-level Rural Fire Truck Acquisition Assistance Program was left unfunded during the last two sessions of the Legislature. The fund has financed about 70 percent of the cost of modern-day pumper trucks, which can reach $200,000.

The State Fire Rebate Insurance Program, which pays back fire insurance premiums each year to local governments statewide to maintain low-cost fire insurance, sent $125,893 to Warren County’s four fire protection taxing districts last year.

Annual distributions must go to train personnel or buy specific, often small, equipment such as radios.

In 2012, the six departments responded to 961 structure fires, auto wrecks, auto fires, medical calls and other requests, compared to 814 in 2011, according to a tally kept by the Fisher Ferry Volunteer Fire Department.

Fisher Ferry, which serves the geographically largest taxing district in the county, at 33.28 square miles to Culkin’s 20.7, has five fire trucks to Culkin’s three and has run a similar deficit, particularly with fuel, FFVFD assistant chief Bobby Rufus said. A 4-mill tax would double the district’s current take of about $65,000 annually.

“The tax would update equipment and pay to replace fire trucks,” Rufus said, adding the oldest truck dates to 1990. “One run with one truck means you’ve burned about $100 in diesel. With what we’re getting, you just hope you can do a little at a time.”

A $32,000 air-compression system purchased in February by the Culkin station was financed with money from the one-quarter-mill tax, said Warren County Fire Coordinator Jerry Briggs, a former Culkin chief who, along with Tate, is undecided on whether to take their plea to the streets with a petition to present to the county board.

“The public doesn’t understand the difference between the funds,” Briggs said. “It costs money to operate the department.”

In Mississippi, boards of supervisors may raise the fire millage up to 2 mills on its own or call an election to do so. A public hearing may be called but isn’t necessary.

Supervisor John Arnold, whose district essentially is the same as Culkin’s fire response area, was among those at a sparsely attended “open house” organized by Culkin officials at its Freetown Road station recently weekend to promote the idea.

The first-term supervisor said he could support a higher millage for fire protection.

“It costs money to suit up a fireman and a department,” Arnold said. “And Culkin responds to a lot of fires.”

Board President Bill Lauderdale, who also attended the meeting, said no request to raise the millage has crossed supervisors’ desks.

“I wouldn’t comment until we’ve gotten a request,” Lauderdale said. “I haven’t seen one.”

Robert Pell, chief of the LeTourneau Volunteer Fire Department, said it’s up to the public to decide whether to get behind a new tax for fire protection.

“I’m all in favor of it,” Pell said, who said his eight active volunteers “are doing fine” with response but the cost of top-notch service has “caught up” to all county volunteer chiefs.

“Used to be, we could put some of the money in savings,” Pell said. “Now, it’s just to pay bills like fuel and Internet service. Then, one tank-up of diesel fuel for the trucks can run $350 or so if you went from empty to full.”

Culkin chief Lamar Frederick, who spent 17 years as a volunteer on the Gulf Coast, said the importance of top-notch equipment is priceless.

“There, we had even older trucks, whereas here we have better equipment here already,” Frederick said. “We do need to update what we have.”

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